“C’est pire qu’un crime. C’est une faute.“
— attributed to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (disputed)
The attempted coup on January 6 should not have been much of a surprise to anyone but maybe the most naive. As I wrote back in 2016, Night of the Living Trumps:
“A geezer I am. I have lived through Nixon, Reagan and Dubya. Should I mention LBJ? One might think of this as yet another spell of really bad weather and verily the sun also rises. But there is a stink of existential threat from Trump that hasn’t been so strong in the air since Nixon.
“Part of it is Trump’s so nakedly disordered personality. Nearly everyone who aspires to be President is likely to be a bit insane, but until now most have been able to simulate normality. Part of it is the enthusiastic bigotry used to motivate Trump’s electorate; there’s no putting that back in the bottle while Trump holds office and the Republican caucuses control the legislature. Part of it is the solid wall of chaotic uncertainty about just what a governing Trump actually means in terms of policy.”
This post is written in early days post-riot, but my impression from a great distance is that the riot was essentially a clusterfuck, to use a bureaucratic term of art: The organizers had no plan beyond yelling and marching and consequently people went where anger and hysteria led them or the organizers had no plan beyond yelling and marching but others at the rally did have a plan or some (or all) of the organizers had a plan but it wasn’t shared with everyone. You might think of additional possibilities but regardless, people did bring young children, infants in fact, to the rally and march. What expectations do you think they had?
One ongoing discussion that I find particularly interesting is the examination of conspiracy theories as role-playing games. A good introduction to this (lots of links) is Reed Berkowitz’ A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon, posted back in September of 2020 at the curiouserinstitute. Berkowitz begins his analysis with:
“When I saw QAnon, I knew exactly what it was and what it was doing. I had seen it before. I had almost built it before. It was gaming’s evil twin. A game that plays people. (cue ominous music)
“QAnon has often been compared to ARGs and LARPs and rightly so. It uses many of the same gaming mechanisms and rewards. It has a game-like feel to it that is evident to anyone who has ever played an ARG, online role-play (RP) or LARP before. The similarities are so striking that it has often been referred to as a LARP or ARG. However this beast is very very different from a game.
“It is the differences that shed the light on how QAnon works and many of them are hard to see if you’re not involved in game development. QAnon is like the reflection of a game in a mirror, it looks just like one, but it is inverted.”
While the technology Berkowitz writes about is ideologically neutral (like Alinsky’s organizing techniques), this particular exercise was targeted:
“Another major difference between QAnon and an actual game, is that Q is almost pure propaganda. That IS the sole purpose of this. It’s not advertising a product, it’s not for fun, and it’s not an art project. There is no doubt about the political nature of the propaganda either. From ancient tropes about Jews and Democrats eating babies (blood-libel re-booted) to anti-science hysteria, this is all the solid reliable stuff of authoritarianism. This is the internet’s re-purposing of hatred’s oldest hits. The messaging is spot on. The “drops” implanted in an aspic of anti-Semitic, misogynist, and grotesque posts on posting boards that, indeed, have been implicated in many of the things the fake conspiracy is supposed to be guilty of!”
If Berkowitz’ analysis is even approximately accurate, it has important and existential implications for democracy, media, journalism, and politics generally. Yet that isn’t quite what got my attention. Berkowitz’ description of the QAnon phenomenon (“A game that plays people.”) suggests that it is a genuine meme, the first that I’ve actually heard of.
Wait. Meme? Don’t we see these every day, those graphical and sometimes comical little factoids that people trade back and forth? Well, yes and no. Richard Dawkins gets credit for coining the term in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. As Wikipedia helpfully explains:
“Dawkins wrote that evolution depended not on the particular chemical basis of genetics, but only on the existence of a self-replicating unit of transmission — in the case of biological evolution, the gene. For Dawkins, the meme exemplified another self-replicating unit with potential significance in explaining human behavior and cultural evolution.”
So “yes” in that an internet factoid could be a trivial example of the concept, “no” in the sense that some folks felt that these “replicating cultural entities” could do much more than entertain. They could conceivably warp human history, indeed even human evolution, as part of their process of natural selection. So if conspiracy explanations on the internet are in fact “memes,” QAnon is a research opportunity of major importance.
Alas, the study of memes hasn’t prospered, has failed to be naturally selected if you will for obvious (to me anyway) reasons: How do you operationalize the concept? How do you define and measure a meme so that it is possible to trace its ecology, evolution and spread? Also IMHO the concept carries an alarming burden of social Darwinism.
But if, conceptually, “meme” has such social Darwinist baggage, is discounting it as social science so unfortunate? Well, maybe, because there are analogous phenomena in the physical sciences: “quasiparticles” and “collective excitations.” These “are emergent phenomena that occur when a microscopically complicated system such as a solid behaves as if it contained different weakly interacting particles in vacuum.” Yeah, your computer and phone and any electronic solid state thing depend on an “emergent phenomenon.” Human consciousness is sometimes speculatively described as an emergent phenomena, a consequence of neural size and complexity. It may be that mass culture has emergent properties as well.
I think we’re in the process of finding out, through experience rather than research.
Postscript: Among the people who took memes seriously is the science fiction author John Barnes. He wrote a series of speculative novels around memes, wherein he turned memes into something resembling computer viruses. All of the books are good albeit some are seriously depressing. I’d recommend (in order) Candle and The Sky So Big and Black. Barnes has gotten favorable cover blurbs from both Poul Anderson and Steven Brust…